For more than a year there was the hell in the house of the preturious usurer Don Franco Lo Carmine, because of the daughter who had faded that beautiful piece of furniture of Santi Zitu, municipal guard, and did not want to hear reason.
Don Franco, with anger, had become thinner and more yellow than the ordinary, and could not talk about anything else with the people to whom he carried the citations and the deeds, as if everyone were interested in his misfortune, that his punishment of God, as he said, exalting himself:
– You will see: some day I will make a big mistake! You’ll see!
But the great blunder never did, because Zitu always wore the dagger at his side, and was protected by the Mayor. But he vented against his daughter and also against his wife, that seemed to hold the bag to that crazy, the unfortunate one.
– What do you want me to do? – Donna Sara replied, whimpering.
– You should smash your head when it comes to the window!
– I always keep the windows closed; do not you hear that smell? The air is missing; you can not breathe in here.
– The windows must indeed remain open, open night and day, and she must not look out!
He was screaming because Benigna, his daughter, heard him from the other room where he had gone to close to avoid the usual scene, before his father started for the district.
– Ah, Lord, Lord! How is this fire escaped in my house? Why?
Donna Sara was beating her disheveled head with her hands, throwing herself on a chair, and carrying a nock of her apron to her eyes to wipe away the tears.
Don Franco, however, was always on the one who lives: and at the slightest time off, he escaped from the Praetura and suddenly fell into the house, to surprise his daughter and Zitu, if by any chance …
And in the days that he had to attend the hearings he looked like a fly without a head; specially if Zitu was there at the disposal of justice together with two carabinieri, and he had to speak to him and take part in the order of the magistrate for some witness that was missing.
Zitu smiled at him obsequiously, answering:
– All right, dear Don Franco!
As soon as he left the room, Don Franco lost his head worse than before.
It seemed to him that Zitu should take advantage of the fine opportunity to know that he was chained there, from the office of the usher, to give a free ride over there and make the smorfioso with the girl who was perhaps waiting for him at the window. For this he gave some money to the carpenter’s son who had his face shop at his house:
– See if Zitu passes! There is two money for you; come and tell me immediately in court.
Since the money gave him only when the boy went to say: – It’s past! – so he, after several times, to earn his tip, told him: – It’s past! – even when it was not true.
– And she, she was at the window?
– He was at the window.
– And did he make any signals?
– He made signals to him, with his white handkerchief!
Don Franco was squeezing his hands, biting his lips, wrenching. But he had to stay there, to call witnesses, until the end of the hearing; and then accompany the Praetor home, who was amused to question him, having guessed that it was, because he knew the thing.
– What do you have, Don Franco?
“I have God’s punishment, Mr. Praetor!”
– Finally, if the girl wants it …
“Rather kill him with my hands, Mr. Pretore!”
– But first with Zitu you were close friends, I think.
– It was a betrayal, Mr. Pretore!
What Don Franco called betrayal, had happened on the evening of the procession on Holy Thursday, while firing the firecrackers, as soon as the statue of Christ at the Column had left the church door, between the chanting of the canons and the cries of the devotees: Long live the Blessed Christ at the Column!
In the crowd, someone had dared to pinch a woman who had turned over and started a fight. Fists, slaps, sticks for the air, flee escape, women fainted, children overwhelmed, rushing with guards and carabinieri, riot!
And Zitu had picked up Benigna, as white as a ragged washed, inert, fainted too for her the fright; and he had to take it in his neck and take it home to the nearby alley; and to help Sara, who shrieked and wept, and could not disengage her daughter’s torso stretched out as long as she was on the bed, like a dead woman.
– A little vinegar, Donna Sara! It’s nothing.
He had worked hard. For a long time, he had set his eyes on the girl, and wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to become a friend of the family. And he had sprinkled the face of the faint with fresh water, and had given her clutches of vinegar to the nostrils and forehead, and clutches to the hands to put the blood in circulation, consoling the mother who could not help but cry and despair:
– It’s nothing, Donna Sara!
Don Franco had come when Benigna had been able to sit on the bed, still pale and stunned, and Zitu was around her attentive, insistent:
– A finger of wine; it will do you good.
And he held her head and brought the glass to her lips.
Don Franco was panting for the ride and the haste with which he had mounted the steps four by four, as soon as they had said:
– Come on; your daughter is hurt!
And he could not speak, and felt his daughter, to guess where it was wounded. Then he stammered;
– Where? where is it?
Zitu, understood the misunderstanding, laughed, and poured a glass of wine to him, saying:
– You know; war time, land lies .
– Ah! … If he was not there!
Donna Sara deepened in praise and thanks, starting to sob in gratitude, for tenderness.
– How do you feel now? Zitu asked the girl.
Benigna smiled at him, making a mossettina with the significant head: I’m better!
– Another sip of wine?
– No thanks!
– Then I drink it to your health!
– It was a miracle of the most holy Christ at the Column! – Sara woman concluded.
And Zitu approved, and Don Franco too.
“Titta’s wife, Sordo ‘s head is broken,” he added in confirmation of his wife’s exclamation.
And he left the house together with Zitu, who invited him to drink a glass of wine in the tavern of Patacca, because passing in front of the door, his friend Patacca greeted them.
They wanted to reach the procession. Meanwhile, in the Piazza dei Vespri, Zitu replied to the invitation in front of the inn of Scatà.
– A single finger will do you good; here the wine is much better than the other one: you will feel.
Don Franco seemed to refuse to refuse.
– Eh? How about?
– Yes, yes; this is not baptized.
– Another glass!
When they reached the floor of Santa Maria, the procession was already far away. On the corner was the Resale of Guadagna, with the laurel branch on the door and the lit lantern.
– Here is that of Vittoria, straightforward.
– No, thank you, Santi appears.
But Santi appears, prèsolo by the arm, pushed him inside.
– The last glass, dear Don Franco!
That last glass dissolved the little talk, put him in joy. Don Franco wanted to tell the hostess the fact of the procession, the miracle of the Blessed Christ at the Column! He was cheating, he recovered, he came back to cheat, and every little beat on Zitu’s shoulder: – Good son! – looking at him with shrunken eyes, little girls: – Good son!
Donna Sara and Benigna, when they saw him staggering back, with the hat on the back of his head, exclaimed in astonishment:
– Oh God! … What have you done?
– Good son, that Zitu! Fior di galantuomo! Long live the Blessed Christ at the Column!
And he let himself fall on the nearby chair, laughing strangely.
* * *
So Zitu was introduced into the Lo Carmine family, and he could make visits even when Don Franco was not there. And one day that Sara had left him alone with her daughter to go for a moment in the kitchen, Zitu could easily tell the girl what he had already made her understand with looks, with care, with jokes:
– I’m crazy about you! If there is your will …
And he had gone further, since the girl, suddenly flushed, lowered her head; grabbed her for life, he wanted to kiss her on the back of her head.
– Mom! Exclaimed Benigna, who was not expecting it. – For heaven’s sake, holy Christian!
But at the bland reprimand, Zitu, who had lost his head, gave her another kiss, and this time over his mouth.
And to that kiss the heart of poor Benigna had given a flash; for the fire had been set on her from the first moment, that evening when, finding herself, she had seen Zitu in front of the bed and had known that she had been carried from his neck to the house like a sick child!
Donna Sara had suddenly noticed something, but had been silent.
“Municipal Guard is not a good job,” she thought. – But, if the patriarch Saint Joseph wants it that way! …
She, too, was dazzled by the uniform and shimmering copper buttons and by the dagger and kepi that Zitu wore defiantly. And she was looking at herself, pretending she had not noticed anything. Especially since Don Franco, to whom Zitu continued suddenly to give good glasses of wine, now from Patacca and now from the Scatà, was expanding in great praises of that good son, a flower of a gentleman, who respected everyone and made himself respected from everyone!
For this, Benigna and Donna Sara fell from the clouds on the evening when Don Franco, all frowning home, before pulling off his hat and laying his club at the usual corner, exclaimed almost with a grunt:
– No one has to come here anymore! That nobody, it was understood, was Zitu.
– Why? What does it mean? – he dared to ask Donna Sara.
– It means you are stupid and an owl! It means that I do not want people between my feet in my house. I’m not master, maybe?
And he slammed the bat into the corner, which fell to the ground.
* * *
A year of hell! In that house no longer ate or slept in peace, since Miss Maligna (Don Franco now did not call her daughter otherwise) resisted the councils, the threats, and even the beatings, bewitched by that infamous (he said no more good son) who wanted to dishonor his family. Birri had never been among the Lo Carmine, and he did not want relatives, neither neighbors nor distant ones! Miss Maligna could put her heart in peace! Neither her, nor her birch would have sprouted!
And the shouts and the threats and the slaps (Don Franco had become too much forearm) made the neighborhood noise every time the carpenter boy; to get the two money, he went to tell him in court: – Zitu has passed! – and it was not true.
On the contrary, Zitu no longer saw them parts; he did not need it. Instead, he went to the house of a friend of his, entering the street back there, without anyone suspecting that his friend gave him the comfort of getting on the terrace to talk comfortably with Benigna from the kitchen window.
– I can not stand it anymore! It means that there is no God’s will! Benigna stammered.
– It means that you do not love me! I kill myself with this dagger; You want me dead, I understand it!
– No, Saints! …
– Decided so, if you love me really!
– Yes, Saints; but … this, no! This no!
Zitu insisted on the escape; there was no other remedy, according to him. Benigna, however, did not want to know. And he ran away from the window at every little noise, and Zitu threw himself on the ground on the terrace so as not to be discovered by Don Franco or by Donna Sara, or by some nearby neighbors.
“Now it’s quiet,” said Donna Sara to her husband. – Leave it alone, give time to time. Sant’Agrippina will do the miracle …
– Yes, like that of the Most Holy Christ at the Column! Don Franco growled.
– Do not say heresies! – his wife rebuked him. – The confessor advised me: –
Make Verginelle to Santa Agrippina. – We will do the Verginelle, with the pilgrimage to Làmia. The confessor will come to say mass there …
– To earn five liras!
* * *
Despite the opposition of her husband, Donna Sara had already made the invitation of the Virgins, that is, of all the girls in the neighborhood, about thirty.
They would have gone in procession to the sanctuary of the Làmia, in the caves of waves Saint Agrippina had driven away the devils upon his arrival from Rome in Mineo; the signs were still visible in the caves darkened by infernal smoke.
The miraculous saint, who had driven the devils out of there, would have thrown the bad temptation of the passionaccia that kept the hell in their house from the girl’s head.
– My daughter, let’s try. If then there is the will of God! …
And the whole week had gone into preparations; there was no talk of anything else in the neighborhood.
Donna Sara had kneaded the lasagna that Benigna cut into the cupboard; and now plucked the rooster and the three hens to be stewed; the bread, they would have fired it in the evening ahead to get it fresh fresh.
“St. Agrippina, you will see, will do the miracle,” Donna Sara repeated.
– Yes, like that of the Most Holy Christ at the Column!
Don Franco held a grudge against the Most Holy Christ at the Column, although he was a good Christian.
And on Wednesday, the pilgrimage started. The Virgins, dressed up for partying, had gathered in Donna Sara’s house. It was wanted to induce Benigna to go too; in fact, that morning she wandered around the house, with red eyes from the tears, squalid by the night passed without sleep, to talk with Zitu from the kitchen window …
Zitu had had her sworn an oath: Over there, at La Làmia, while the little girls were singing the rosary in the great cave, she had to go and join him in the little cave at the end of the sanctuary; he wanted to talk to her alone. Nobody would have noticed it; we saw so little in those smoky caves! He was a friend of the hermit who kept the sanctuary; he would have gone there the night before:
– Swear you’ll come! …
– I swear, if I can without giving suspicion!
– If you want, you can! Swear again!
And the poor woman had sworn. For this he had red eyes, so he was trembling.
There was a crowd on the street; all the wives on the windows or on the doors. And when the sacristan came to give the warning that the priest had already left before going on horseback, the procession of the virginles spread out by reciting the rosary, and it was soon in the middle of the countryside.
The day was splendid; the countryside, seeded blonde; the peasants who went to work stopped, pulled aside at the points where the road was wide, to let the Verginelle pass that, having finished the rosary, proceeded to groups, laughing, chattering, singing also songs of love.
One of the girls taken arm in arm Benigna, confided her pains. She was in love too, and her relatives opposed her:
– Relatives always do that! But me, if they still hold on …
And with his hand he mentioned that he would take flight with his lover.
– No, these things are not done! Exclaimed Benigna.
“My aunt did that,” answered the girl. – And now everyone is at peace with the family.
The road had become a steep path; already you could see the reddish rocks and the valley; the sanctuary was there at the back. And as more approached, Benigna felt his legs bend under, he trembled all over. No, he would not have been able to escape his mother’s companions and surveillance; she would not be able to find the little grotto indicated even though she had sworn. Oh God! Why had he sworn?
* * *
The priest was at the foot of the steps carved into the rock mass, with the sacristan and the hermit. The priest’s mount, tied to a tree, quietly ate fresh grass.
What peace, what tranquility in the valley! The tàccole and the hawks flew, croaked, squeaked up the rock; among the poplars that lined the stream, a nightingale warbled. The caves echoed deafly with songs and laughter.
The young girls arranged themselves in a row, intoned the rosary and began to climb the narrow staircase, bending down to enter the sanctuary from that door or rather a hole.
In the second cave, vast and black, the four candles lit on the altar seemed to thicken the darkness around. The priest wore sacred vestments, helped by the sacristan. The hermit was arranging the virginines to six to six, in many rows in front of the altar, discarding this or that, indicating the place to Donna Sara, taking Benigna by the hand and placing her in line at all. Benigna felt himself dying when the hermit, brushing her face with the long, shaggy beard, whispered in her ear:
– And the; I will give you the signal.
And he knelt to the side, answering aloud to the rosary, while the priest said the introibo .
Soon after, he took her by the hand, lifted her, pushed her back. Benigna saw, deep down, a little ‘light and a ghost that came forward. He was sweating cold, he did not breathe; and among the voices of the rosary, he only heard that of the hermit who answered most strongly:
– Santa Maria, mother of God!
After mass, on the esplanade, while the virgin girls, made the school lunch, danced to the sound of the harpsichord that one of them had brought, Donna Sara had approached her daughter.
Benigna seemed dazed, had tears in his eyes, and paid no attention to the priest who, telling the miracle of the driving away of the devils operated there by the Saint, pointed to the rock holes where the devils had escaped at the sight of the cross.
– What do you have?
– The miracle is done! – said the hermit, smiling and stroking his beard.
* * *
But Donna Sara understood very late that the Blessed Saint had not entered for nothing.
And Don Franco, who had to bow his head and fell ill from sorrow, in addition to the Most Holy Christ at the Column, also pouted at Santa Agrippina who had forced him that way to relate with a beer!